If there’s a Wild Turkey expression that divides whiskey enthusiasts, it’s Kentucky Spirit. We can all agree that Wild Turkey 101 is a tremendous value – affordable, versatile, and readily available. The same could be said of Rare Breed in comparison to its competition, like Booker’s or Maker’s Mark Cask Strength. And few will argue that Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel isn’t one of the best single-barrel bourbons produced by any Kentucky distillery. But Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit … you won’t find near as many vocal champions in 2020. Why is that?
First off, there will always exist a scale where Kentucky Spirit is weighed against Wild Turkey 101. After all, they’re the same bourbon recipe, chill filtered and bottled at 101 proof. The only major difference between the two (outside of packaging) is how they’re produced post maturation. Kentucky Spirit is a single-barrel expression, typically aged at least eight years (though officially non-age stated); Wild Turkey 101 is a non-age-stated batched expression, typically aged six to ten years per Eddie Russell. If you average Wild Turkey 101’s maturity, that places it head to head with the single-barrel Kentucky Spirit.
The beauty of a single barrel lies in its inherent uniqueness. This shines in particular at barrel proof. Unfortunately, there is no barrel-proof, single-barrel Wild Turkey expression (yet, right Campari? 😉 ). Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel comes close at 110 proof … close, but no cigar. Kentucky Spirit sees an additional nine points of dilution over Russell’s Reserve, yet maintains enough character to set individual barrels apart – especially in consideration of competition like Buffalo Trace and Elijah Craig private barrel selects (90 and 94 proof, respectively). Yet as unique as a particular barrel of Kentucky Spirit may be, is it always better than Wild Turkey 101? Not always.
Which brings me to the second reason you don’t hear many folks championing modern-day Kentucky Spirit – price. To say that Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit is a value at $65 would be stretching it. Sure, it’s comparable in retail price (sometimes cheaper) than highly sought after bottles like Rock Hill Farms and Blanton’s (more on that one later). But when the spec-superior Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel can be found for $65 or less (both standard retail and private selections), Kentucky Spirit struggles considerably in the value department.
Lastly, there’s the bottle design change that occurred in early 2019. While it had absolutely nothing to do with the actual bourbon being bottled, Kentucky Spirit’s 25th anniversary saw the introduction of a relatively simplistic design. Gone was Jimmy’s classic turkey tail feather glass and hand-written barrel info that consumers had known since the first bottle was filled in 1994. Some welcomed the change, but I think it’s more than fair to say that the grand majority of Wild Turkey fans took a punch to the gut. Nevertheless, true fans continued to purchase Kentucky Spirit, though probably not as often as the increasingly popular Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon.
This isn’t the first time I’ve placed Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit under the microscope. I’ve been candid in sharing my thoughts on the expression’s progression and overall direction on multiple occasions. Some have even considered past posts as negative towards the brand. I don’t think so. I love Wild Turkey. I’m just a fan speaking his mind. My opinion is no more or less significant than any other’s. Yet the question remains: Could Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit be improved? Absolutely, and it starts with appearances. But for now, let’s see how this 2016 bottle I recently received from a friend measures up. (Thanks again, Bryant.) Let’s pour!
Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit – 101-proof KSBW – no age stated (reportedly at least eight years) – bottled 11/9/2016 from barrel #3253, warehouse G, rick #6 – distilled by the Austin, Nichols Distilling Company, Lawrenceburg, KY
Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …
Color: brilliant copper
Nose: (rich, modern WT) vanilla bean, caramel apple, honey-oak, brown sugar, nutmeg, sweet tea, hints of citrus & maple syrup
Taste: (notably oily) toasted caramel, English toffee, vanilla cola, charred oak, brown sugar, nutmeg, faint clove & orange peel
Finish: medium-long, sticky w/ lingering spice – peppery vanilla, caramel, sweet & spicy oak, cola, clove, chewing tobacco, leather
Overall: I’ll be damned if this isn’t one helluva “shelfer.” While not a private selection bottling, this 2016 Kentucky Spirit falls somewhere between Lincoln Road’s #2472 and Adam Acquistapace’s #651 (closer to Acquistapace’s, truthfully). In fact, I’d go so far as to say this bottle represents the ideal modern Wild Turkey single barrel – at least a Turkey barrel bottled at 101 proof. Even chill filtered, it practically sips like a Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel bottling. (Not kidding.) The core bourbon notes are dense and structured (vanilla bean ice cream, flame-toasted caramel, mature oak) and the supporting spice and earthy notes offer more than enough character to place this whiskey a step above standard Wild Turkey 101. Exactly what I look for in a modern Kentucky Spirit … 101 with flair!
Rating: 4/5 🦃
This past week I gained a new perspective. Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit may have fallen out of favor with some enthusiasts due to its occasional 101-comparable profile and unfortunate downgrade in packaging, but thankfully it hasn’t stooped to Blanton’s subpar quality level. Granted, Blanton’s packaging knocks it out of the park. Age International certainly appreciates their classic bottle design introduced by Elmer T. Lee in 1984. I’ll give them that. If only they appreciated the whiskey filling those bottles as much. One could always put forward the single barrel argument as a profile defense. I’d give that more credit if maturity wasn’t a blatantly apparent factor. As it stands, Blanton’s is now wholly uninspiring and youthful. I’d even call it “craft-like,” if it weren’t for the fact that some craft whiskey sips on par or better.
So here’s my two cents, Campari. If you’re going to keep Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit around, maybe go back and take a fresh look at Jimmy’s baby. Consider ditching the Rare Breed bottle. Step up the design game like you did with the Whiskey Barons collection and Longbranch. Let folks see the difference before they taste it and you might just reel in a larger audience. Above all else, never forget the reason why Kentucky Spirit was introduced in the first place – to compete directly with Blanton’s. You’re winning the flavor battle, but it doesn’t really matter if Kentucky Spirit sits on the shelf while Blanton’s is purchased well before.
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Value is a killer for KS at the current price point. I purchased one before the ill advised bottle change and unfortunately, as sometimes happens with single barrels, mine did not meet or exceed std. 101. That beautiful tail-feather bottle though?, that is a keeper and a fine decanter for my handles of 101. They need to bring that bottle style back.
Better design, kill the chill filtration, find more slightly off-profile barrels, and adjust the price by a few dollars = back in business.
Agreed about KS vs Blanton’s. It’s got to be about the bottle design and the whole “must horde everything out of Buffalo Trace” mentality.
When judging solely by what’s in the bottle Kentucky Spirit has much more to offer.
Couldn’t have said it better. 👍
I know that older whiskey is not really the Russell way, but if they wanted to keep the price point of Kentucky Spirit then at least maybe bump up the age to 12-15 years old or something like that to justify the price (like Knob Creek just did). I’ve never bought a KS bottle because the value ratio is so off. I’ve had a delicious KS pour at a bar, but I likely won’t be getting a bottle for myself anytime soon—not unless the price drops down closer to $30 or so. That seems like it’s be the right, fair ballpark.
I know some people have a nostalgic attachment to the old design, but it looks like tacky garbage. The new bottle is a significant improvement to consumers outside the COVID19 high risk bracket.
Hmm … I guess us old timers have a different opinion on what constitutes tacky garbage.
Agree 100%. Didn’t buy this before the change in bottle design. That old design was just wrong.
Interesting. So you didn’t like the classic “fan tail” design?
Warehouse G is my go-to. Haven’t had a swing and miss yet.
How do you think Campari internally justifies the price of Kentucky spirit? Any insight? My local TW sells their RR store picks for about 63, their Kentucky spirit picks for 60. And just the regular retail versions are priced the same. It’s just…odd. It seems the RR label is supposed to be the premium side of wild turkey, but the pricing on these bottles is inconsistent with that.
I’m not sure how they’re viewing it. I assume like other single barrels priced similarly, like RHF and Blanton’s. RRSiB is a much better value, as you’ve noted.
In my area, I can get it for $55 at the county liquor stores. Only carried at a few of them but I really like it. Of course, there is a 9 percent tax added. One of my favorites. In the non-WT world I recently discovered is Old Elk blended bourbon. Totally different with 34 percent malted barley. Still, I am a 101 bourbon fan for mixing and KS is my overall favorite with one or two rocks
I’ve heard interesting things about Old Elk. I’ll have to try it out. Thanks!
Great article, my bourbon journey starting with eagle rare and Blantons has finally lead me to the WT distillery which is now my favorite. WT 101 is the best value on the market period. Started trying KS recently and I haven’t been disappointed yet. I think they generally have that typical 101 flavor but with a little more vanilla/orange creamsicle and I dig it. Personally, I don’t really care about the packaging my only critique is the price paid 59$ pre taxes for one today. Totally delicious creamsicle/orange spice/clove as per usual so I will probably still buy a few bottles a year for a break from my usual RB and RRSiB addiction. I will say if this were 10 bucks cheaper and non chill filtered it would be really hard to pass up lol. It’s so weird how these barrels differ so much from the RRSiB which always have a grape/cherry flavor to them. I’ll never understand how warehouse placement can change bourbon flavor so much but I’m gonna enjoy every sip of it lol.
Thanks JD. Appreciate you reading and commenting.